(This covers The Iron Duke
, Heart of Steel
, and two novellas in Burning Up
and Wild & Steamy
. I was going to put in individual write ups here as well, but the post is already monstrously long as is.)
Since several people praised the Ben Aaronovitch books and I am not in the mood for romance, I went for ...a tear through steampunk romance. My brain, I do not understand it either.
Five hundred years ago, the Mongolian Horde conquered most of the Eurasian continent via nanotechnology and war machines. When the series begins, the Horde's empire has begun to decline, and England has been freed from Horde rule nine years ago, when the Iron Duke blew up the tower that controlled people via the nanoagents they are all infected with.
Unsurprisingly, I had some serious issues with this premise. That said, I liked how much worldbuilding there was in The Iron Duke
, though I didn't necessarily like the worldbuilding itself. The next two books have been exploring much more about the world and expanding it. I still find some of the things in the world nidgy, but there's been enough interesting stuff to balance it out so far.
For one, it is an incredibly thorough alternate timeline. Paranormal romances from around twenty years ago used to read as though the magic was only in there to further along the romance, what's now called urban fantasy has definitely improved on that, but this is a series I would actually give to someone who wanted worldbuilding detail. I particularly like how Brook has extrapolated how different cultures in her world work: the English are much more comfortable with sex and mechanical prosthetics, given that they didn't have much choice with either under Horde rule, whereas the New World, populated by refugees from Europe and Africa, tends to much more closely resemble historical mores. The New World, on the other hand, is extremely multiracial. Brook is also taking a lot of time to explore bits of it; having each book be an individual adventure instead of part of an overall arc means that they can cover a lot more of the world. It is still very Europe-focused though.
I'm still not sure what I think about the treatment of Native peoples. I couldn't tell what had happened to various indigenous communities when European and African refugees flooded in after zombies basically took over Europe and Africa, and so far, the books focus more on New World communities established by the refugees, particularly ones that speak European languages and correspond to European countries. We know that Portugal and Spain and France and England have carved out little portions, but I wanted to know about various African empires and kingdoms as well. I know from her online guide
to the world that actually, the vast majority of the Americas is under the control of assorted Native confederacies, but it's not something that has so far showed up in the text itself. (Also, annoyed at "New World" terminology, though I suppose it makes sense given that it's all European people in the books talking about it.)
I wasn't sure how aware Brook was of things like imperialism and colonization and how intertwined they can be with steampunk—the very beginning of The Iron Duke
mentions that the people in England almost all refuse to drink tea or eat anything with sugar, because the Horde used tea and sugar to hide the nanoagents used to infect and then conquer England centuries ago. On reading this, I didn't feel sorry at all for the English and more thought, "Ha, serves you guys right!" given real-world history of how tea and sugar trade went hand in hand with colonization (I am also curious how the Horde got all that sugar, given that there aren't sugar plantations in the Americas. SE Asia is my guess?). I think now that Brook was actually aware of this and meant for it to be ironic, but without much context, I gave it a lot of sideeye when I first read about it.
I also find the worldbuilding really interesting because Brook is obviously using it to explore issues around disability (mostly the social model of disability, I think, so far), gay and lesbian rights, women's rights, and race. Sometimes it's been heavy handed, or it doesn't quite feel right to me, or I roll my eyes, but it's substantively more than most paranormal romances and urban fantasies do, and actually more than a fair amount of sf/f does.
That said, I'd advise pretty much everyone to skip The Iron Duke
, which is the book I want to throw against a wall (heroine: awesome. hero: HATE HATE I HATE HIM SO MUCH). Heart of Steel
features the cutthroat Arabic pirate airship captain and the Indiana Jones-type guy she throws off her ship the second time they meet. Riveted
has POC in the roles of hero AND heroine (this may actually be a first for me in non-African-American romance), along with ( minor spoiler that I think will convince people to try this. )